Jounce Therapeutics’ $56M Series B to build out “atlas of human cancers,” diversify immunotherapy offerings

Cambridge biotech Jounce Therapeutics is attempting a sort of one-stop cancer immunotherapy shop – using proprietary in-house diagnostics to inform its drug development process. Jounce just raised a hefty $56 million Series B, with plans to move its lead monoclonal antibody program into the clinic. But, interestingly, it’s also using the funding to build out “an atlas of human cancers,” CEO Rich Murray […]

Cambridge biotech Jounce Therapeutics is attempting a sort of one-stop cancer immunotherapy shop – using proprietary in-house diagnostics to inform its drug development process.

Jounce just raised a hefty $56 million Series B, with plans to move its lead monoclonal antibody program into the clinic. But, interestingly, it’s also using the funding to build out “an atlas of human cancers,” CEO Rich Murray said, to help match a patient’s tumor type with the respective Jounce-created biologic it needs. This will help Jounce study the therapeutic potential of other immune system players, such as innate cells and stromal cells. Its lead focus at present is the T cell.

This comes just two years after Jounce’s impressive Series A debut, with $47 million from Third Rock Ventures. Jounce developed a T cell-based program with that funding. It targets the ICOS antibody, so as to amplify immune response against certain cancers. It’s going after the low-hanging fruit at present – choosing tumors that will most likely respond to a T-cell therapy – trying to “match the right targets to well-defined patient populations in order to achieve a higher probability of success and rapid proof-of-concept.”  This program’s ready for clinical trials; a second program will head into IND-enabling studies, Murray said.

But the thing about T cell-based immunotherapy: It’s not universally impactful.

“With Yervoy and the different anti-PD1 therapies, we’re in an astounding time for cancer immunotherapy,” Murray said. “But what’s still true: It only works in a minority of patients.”

So along with its T cell program, Jounce began a deep dive into characterizing different tumor types, studying how other immune cells – not just T cells – could work as immunotherapy agents. This broader range of engineered immune components could potentially be used in tandem to treat cancers that otherwise have been unresponsive to immunotherapy, Murray said.

“The first year or so after being founded, we ran a very large-scale analysis of human tumors,” Murray said. “When you look at human tumors on a grand, whole-scale level, you can start to see patterns of characterization in immune response.”

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A Deep-dive Into Specialty Pharma

A specialty drug is a class of prescription medications used to treat complex, chronic or rare medical conditions. Although this classification was originally intended to define the treatment of rare, also termed “orphan” diseases, affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the US, more recently, specialty drugs have emerged as the cornerstone of treatment for chronic and complex diseases such as cancer, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS.

Specifically, Jounce looks at which portions of the immune response have infiltrated into the tumor cells. This helps characterize what the cancer is and, potentially, what kind of immunotherapy would work in targeting the tumor. The goal, he said, is to change that tumor microenvironment from immune-suppressing to immune-activating – but not to the level of the T-cell.

Despite using such screening techniques to hone its drug development strategy, Jounce isn’t aiming to be a diagnostics company. Rather, it plans to partner out its diagnostics.

“We see the diagnostic portion as an important tool for us to develop drugs in a focused and rapid way,” Murray said.

The new, oversubscribed Series B round comes from Wellington Management, Redmile Group, Nextech Invest, Pharmstandard International, Cormorant Asset Management, Omega Funds, Casdin Capital, Foresite Capital Management and an undisclosed blue chip public investment fund.

“We’re focusing on the two branches of the company,” Murray said. “Drug R&D, as well as what will be the ultimate patient selection tool.”